Showcasing the art and ritual of the African and African-diaspora religions

Santa Marta la Dominadora statue with black child

Catalog Number: H004


39.0 x 25.0 x 22.5 cm



15.4 x 9.8 x 8.9 in


Religion and Denomination: Vodun (West Africa, Ewe-Gen-Aja-Fon)
Ethnographic Origin: Dominican (Caribbean)
Materials: pigment
Usage: N/A
Detailed Description of Significance:

Santa Martha of Tarascon was a woman from medieval Europe who was sainted after taming a savage dragon. She has widespread popularity in the Dominican Republic. By the 1960s, statues such as this one had found their ways into religious goods shops known as botánicas there and, eventually, into other Latin American destinations. 

This statue is a three-dimensional re-imagining of a complex of water spirit images that have circulated around the Atlantic for more than a century. The original inspiration for these arts seems to have been a poster for a Southeast Asian snake charmer who performed at a German menagerie in the late nineteenth century. While the most famous chromolithograph of the entertainer featured her only from the hips up, for Santa Marta, an unknown artist has improvised a cross-legged posture and a long gown. The infant here may refer to a flute player in some versions of the snake charmer image, or to popular Catholic iconography of the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child. Some variants of the Santa Marta design omit this feature.

Practitioners of Vodu, the version of Haitian Vodou practiced in the Dominican Republic, have added Santa Marta to the ranks of their sacred divinities. Many Dominicans hold that there are actually two Santa Martas, one black, the other white, and statues such as this are available in a variety of skin tones that reflect the diverse backgrounds of her devotees. The statue shown here, with darker skin, represents a spirit who goes by many names: Santa Marta Africana, Santa Marta la Negra, Santa Marta Lubana, la Virgen Diminadora de la Serpiente, or, simply, Santa Marta la Dominadora. All of these names posit an African origin for the spirit. She is sometimes identified with the Kongo spirits, which practitioners and scholars link to the divinities of the Kongo people of West–Central Africa. Others connect her to elemental fire or earth, or to the Petwo spirits.